IN his speech during the Philippine Manufacturing Summit, businessman Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala talked about the need for the country to prepare for the impact of Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution that is sweeping the world. “I strongly believe that we can navigate the employment challenges brought about by Industry 4.0 by retooling and re-skilling the labor force, while also reexamining existing educational curriculums,” he said.

But first, why is this called the fourth industrial revolution? The term is used to describe sweeping change in industrial production. Water and steam power propped up the mechanization of production in the first industrial revolution. Electric power propped up the second. The third industrial revolution has electronics and information technology automating production. The fourth fuses technology that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres (“The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond,” by Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum).

Zobel’s speech was apparently widely received by minds focused on the economy. Unfortunately, we are in a period when policy makers are stuck in other concerns like the war against illegal drugs and the seizure of absolute power via a revolutionary government instead of preparing for the flood that might sweep away an economy that is heavily dependent on exported labor.

The first step in finding a solution is acknowledging that a problem exists. In this sense, does our policy makers even know what Industry 4.0 is about and how it would impact not only our economy but even the socio-political setup? When overseas Filipino workers start going home in droves after losing their jobs to robots, would that be the only time government would scramble to look for solutions?

Robotics are even now impacting on one of the biggest sources of employment in the country, the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Jobs that are repetitive in nature are slowly giving way to automation, which means that call center agents or humans will have to be shifted to jobs that “require critical thinking and complex decision-making” according to an industry insider.

Reminds us of the phrase James Carville, then candidate Bill Clinton’s aide, used as a mantra in the 1992 US presidential elections: “It’s the economy, stupid!”